We can take him in 15," Angelo Dundee said before the fight. "But I think we gonna take him quicker if we can bust him up. We got Willie hitting flat-footed, because this guy busts up easy."
"We seen him three times," Lou Gross, Pastrano's trainer, said. "He ain't seen us at all. That wasn't Willie he beat in Miami Beach. I don't know who it was, but it wasn't Willie."
Charley Johnston, who is the American manager of Argentine light heavy Gregorio Peralta, looks like a man left over from a Damon Runyon story. Even in warm New Orleans he wore a hat and a coat and vest, and he disagreed completely with Pastrano's managers.
"They been talking about the weight," he said the day before the championship fight last week in New Orleans. "My boy has been 75, 76 all week. I didn't let it out, because it gives something to write about. Now I can tell you something else, too. He's gonna fight the same fight he did in Miami Beach. He can throw punches from anywhere. I don't mess with his style. It works. I'll tell you something else, because now it is too late for them to do anything about it. He is the best body puncher I ever see, and he is gonna beat Pastrano to the body. He is quicker than Pastrano. They the same age, but he hasn't been through the mill like Pastrano."
April 20, 1964
Peralta, tall but sparrowlike, with a deep, thin, arched chest and slender arms and legs, looked as if he had had trouble making the weight. In his last workout at Curley's Gym the skin on his face and body was stretched paper-thin. If he carried an excess ounce it was nowhere apparent.
Pastrano looked gaunt, too. He had left Miami a month before the fight at a cushiony 186, but the once-plump cheeks now seemed sunken. He did not look as drawn as Peralta, however.
"I'm gonna dry Willie out," Gross said the day before the fight. "But I always dry out my fighters. It's good for them. Makes them faster."
At the weigh-in the scales registered 174¾ pounds for each fighter. Pastrano might have come in at 174, but he had breakfast in his room at the Sheraton-Charles Hotel with his wife, Faye. Gross, who had hovered over him like a mother hen for a month, for once was not present, and Willie, who no doubt felt dried out enough, nibbled hungrily at his wife's breakfast. The little break in training added the three-quarters of a pound. After the weigh-in Pastrano went to Moran's Restaurant with his wife, Dundee, Gross and some friends for his pre-game meal and—surprise—he wasn't hungry enough to finish the rare fillet he ordered.
"I'm sleepy," he said to Faye. "Finish your coffee, honey. Let's go. I got to get that twilight sleep this afternoon."
He left with Faye, and Moran said, "You won't forget? The gloves?"
"No, man," Willie said. "You get 'em right after the fight."
"You gonna celebrate here?" Moran said.
"No, man," Willie said. "I'm gonna celebrate with a big dish of ice cream and some hot dogs in the room. We had a big celebration after the Johnson fight in Vegas, but I was too pooped to pop. I'm always too pooped to pop after a fight. I'll celebrate tomorrow night."
He looked sleepy in his dressing room that night as he wrapped his left hand. Johnston came in to watch.
"No tape over the knuckles," he said once, and Willie grinned at him.
"He's just trying to bug me," he said.
Gross went into Peralta's room to watch him being taped, but he offered no comment. Pastrano's hands had been still while he was wrapped, but Peralta's trembled slightly. His beaked bird face was serious. During his workouts he had laughed most of the time.
Peralta was first in the ring, wearing a robe with "Da le, Goyo" on the back, Spanish for "Give it to him, Goyo." Goyo is the nickname for Gregorio. The considerable contingent of Argentines who had come up to New Orleans for the fight raised clenched right fists and chanted, "Da le, Goyo!" fiercely, and Goyo smiled a wan smile and ducked his head at them.
When Pastrano came in, the four thousand people in the auditorium applauded the home-town champion furiously, and Peralta, standing in his corner, joined politely in the applause. Pastrano, seeing him, looked surprised, then walked across the ring and shook hands with Peralta.
It was, while it lasted, a whale of a fight. Peralta is a difficult fighter, who switches leads often, throws punches powerfully from unlikely angles and concentrates on the body. Against Pastrano in the over-the-weight match he won in Miami Beach he had scored heavily with body punches.
"I could see them coming, but I didn't do anything about it," Pastrano explained later. "I'd catch, catch, then clinch, and I just couldn't get myself in a frame of mind to hit back. I took him too lightly, and I didn't really care much about the fight."
On this night, with the championship at stake and before the people of the city in which he was raised, Pastrano cared a great deal. At 175, he was as quick as he has ever been, and that is very quick. Peralta's free-swinging body punching of necessity leaves his head exposed, and Pastrano in the first round stabbed him hard with a left jab a few times, then planted his feet and countered savagely with a clubbing right hand to the head, forcing Peralta to blink. Pastrano, known previously mostly for the butterfly punches of a master boxer, hit harder in this fight than in any other he has ever had.
The pattern of the first three rounds was the same, with Peralta shifting and swinging for the body, landing on elbows most of the time but occasionally driving solidly to Pastrano's belly, and with Willie, mindful of Peralta's tendency to cut easily, sharpshooting at the head with his left hand and countering hard to the head with his right as the opportunity arose.
In the fourth round Peralta ducked away from a left hand into a strong right which landed flush on his left eye, where he had been cut in a fight against Wayne Thornton in November. The blow split the left eyelid from the corner of the eye diagonally up into the eyebrow. The cut was an inch and a half long and immediately began to bleed profusely.
"All that blood gave me a beautiful target," Pastrano said later.
Peralta's seconds stemmed the flow briefly in the interval between the fourth and fifth rounds, and Peralta, aware that the fight might be stopped, attacked furiously in the fifth, trying desperately for a knockout. Unfortunately, the fury of his attack again left his face relatively unprotected, and Pastrano, with the dispassionate cruelty of an old pro, pecked away at the eye with left jabs until the wound opened again. Although he took punishment to the stomach—one low blow doubled him over briefly—he landed two or three slashing right hands to Peralta's eye, and by the end of the round the cut was all over blood.
In Pastrano's corner after the fifth round Dundee and Gross paid little attention to Pastrano. They were all watching the activity in Peralta's corner, where the cut man applied medication to the eye, only to have the ring doctor wipe it off and declare Peralta unable to continue.
"It wouldn't have happened in New York," Johnston said bitterly later. "We could have gone on. They saw he was getting to Willie, and they had an excuse to stop it. I knew we could win big or I never would've come down here to New Orleans to fight Pastrano. But I didn't expect this."
The doctor was right. The long, deep cut in the eyelid was reason enough to stop the fight, and with a master marksman like Pastrano firing at so easy a target, Peralta might have suffered permanent damage to the eye.
After the fight ended, Pastrano went back to his corner, stripped off the gloves and looked for Moran. He threw the gloves to Tony and headed for a room where he talked briefly to the press. "I was home when the bell rang," he said. "I saw it all out in front. He fought the same way he did before. I made the mistake of backing away from him the first time. This time I moved from side to side and countered. I was there to stay, man. If I'd of been cut the way he was cut, I'd of wanted them to stop it, too."
Later there was a victory party in Angelo Dundee's suite in the Sheraton. Everyone was there but Willie. He was in his room eating ice cream.